for a New Age
Rediscovering the Lost Esoteric Tradition
By Rev. Gaetano Salomone
Gnosis is an ancient Greek term that means “knowledge,” referring to inner, spiritual intuition and insight. Gnosticism has been a hot topic of debate ever since the 1947 discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library in Egypt where previously unknown documents were buried in an effort to hide them from heresy hunters sometime between 200-300 CE. These writings, which include the now famous Gospel of Thomas, a collection of mystical sayings of Jesus, provide invaluable information concerning the rich diversity of earliest Christianity before the religion became institutionalized.
The gnostic writings offer an alternative vision of Jesus, the sacraments and spiritual reality. Before Nag Hammadi, most of what was known of the gnostics was through critiques of the Church Fathers, who opposed them as heretical opponents of the rising orthodoxy. Yet Christianity had a gnostic influence from the very beginning, as seen in the writings of St. Paul, who speaks to gnostics within his own congregations (cf. 1 Corinthians).
The first explicit condemnation of gnosticism is found in 1 Timothy 6:20, which warns against followers of “false knowledge.” 1 John 4:3 condemns anyone who denies that Jesus came in the flesh — one of the claims of certain gnostic groups. By the second and third centuries, gnostic schools had nevertheless grown in number and sophistication to rival churches of the orthodox before they were eventually suppressed.
Gnostic groups ranged from small sects to larger churches. The most important gnostic thinkers include Basilides and Valentinus who espoused elaborate theories of the origins of the universe and esoteric doctrines regarding the celestial journey of the soul. Another gnostic leader named Marcion actually came up with his own version of the New Testament that included only ten letters of Paul and the Gospel of Luke.
One of the most widespread Gnostic churches in the ancient world was founded by Mani — an Iranian prophet who purposely tried to start a world religion. His system, known as Manicheanism, combined elements from Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism that postulated a cosmic war between good and evil, with holy avatars periodically coming to earth to save the human race. Mani upheld Jesus and Buddha as saints on an equal footing and his religion spread as far as China before it slowly died out.
Gnostics viewed themselves as spiritual elite who saw through and transcended dogmatic religion. Condemned for their worship of angels and use of astrology, they viewed the physical world and the flesh as a trap to be escaped. Rejecting the Creator God of the Hebrew Bible as an inferior Demiurge (false god), they strove to reunite with a higher Father of Infinite Light.
For gnostics, the idea of the resurrection of the dead was repugnant, believing instead in a spiritual evolution of consciousness in this life. Various gnostic texts speak of astral projection through seven heavens (aeons) before arriving to the ultimate realm called the Pleroma. The first century gnostics were thus similar to new agers of today — eclectic spirits who integrated myth and symbolism from the world’s religions into Judeo/Christian categories.
One of the patron saints of Gnosticism is Mary Magdalene, who is presented in the Gospel of Philip as kissing Jesus on the mouth and was the first witness of the resurrection (John 20:11-18). As a result, gnostic churches were more decentralized, with women preachers and teachers. Gnostics even spoke of the Holy Spirit as the female person of the Trinity or Sophia (wisdom).
Gnosticism re-emerged during the middle ages in France and Italy under the new name Cathar, which means “the perfect.” Practicing apostolic poverty, Cathar preachers traversed the towns criticizing the wealth and corruption of the priesthood, encouraging people to abandon the Catholic sacraments. They administered their own rite known as the con-solamentum, where initiates were given the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands.
After the Papal Inquisition hunted down the Cathars, it was only during the Renaissance that alchemy developed a new gnosticism which upheld nature as a revelation of the divine. It is the latter forms of gnosis that eventually gave birth to the contemporary new age and neo-pagan movements. The legacy of the ancient gnosis thus still survives under different forms, comprising an underground tradition of spiritual truth.
For Further Reading: Hoeller, Stephan. Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing. Wheaton, Illinois, Theosophical Publishing House, 2002; Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979; Rob-inson, James M., ed. The Nag Hammadi Library in English, rev. ed. Harper/San Francisco, 1989; Smoley, Richard and Jay Kinney. Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions. New York: Penguin, 1999.
Rev. Gaetano Salomone is an ordained, independent priest in the Old Catholic tradition. He conducts lectures and workshops on mystical Christianity, world spirituality and transpersonal psychology. Look for his seminars at the Learning Light Foundation in Anaheim. Copyright ©2003
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